1997-08-04 00:00:00

Oblate Father Eliseo Mercado has been elected floor leader of the assembly overseeing peace and development projects in southern Philippine areas claimed for decades by armed Muslim groups.

He was chosen July 25 by the Consultative Assembly of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) during its fifth general assembly in Pagadian City, 790 kilometers southeast of Manila.

The SPCPD was created through a September 1996 peace agreement between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) ending 25 years of conflict in the south.

The three-year transitional body covering 14 provinces and nine cities in Mindanao and Palawan islands is to monitor the implementation of the peace pact and development projects in the region.

A plebiscite is scheduled in 1999 to determine which SPCPD areas are to be included in an expanded autonomous Muslim region. At present, only four SPCPD provinces have a majority of Muslims among their populations and voted to be part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in a 1989 plebiscite.

Father Mercado, in Belgium at the time of his election, is president of Notre Dame University in Cotabato City, 885 kilometers southeast of Manila, the base of both the ARMM and the SPCPD.

The Oblate priest studied Islam in the Middle East as well as earned a diploma at the Pontifical Institute of Islamic and Arabic Studies in Rome.

Notre Dame´s Peace Center is consultant to MNLF-government peace negotiators and officially monitors the cease-fire agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which split from the MNLF in the 1970s.

Government talks with the MILF, which does not recognize the September agreement, have been stalled by continued clashes between their armies in MILF-claimed territories.

Father Mercado had been appointed interim floor leader of the 81-member Consultative Assembly by Nur Misuari, the MNLF chairman who became ARMM governor and SPCPD chairman.

SPCPD executive director Muslimin Sema said the council would continue to work towards a "solid Mindanao voice" so the national government in Manila would respond to Mindanao´s needs.

Among the needs noted by Indonesian Brigadier General Aqlani Maza were infrastructure, employment, education and health services, electricity and water supply.

Though Manila-based officials say money has been released, Misuari claims the funds have been earmarked for ARMM operations and other budgeted projects but are not available for SPCPD endeavors.

Maza, who leads the Indonesian SPCPD monitors who brokered the September peace accord, said his government would be interested in financing infrastructure projects, particularly those that are agriculture-based.

"A kilometer of road means a lot. You get people to dig the canals, perhaps others haul soil ... you generate employment," Maza said.

Peace advocates in the region, including Mindanao bishops dialoguing with Islamic leaders say that addressing the people´s poverty is essential to peace in the areas.

"We must be able to utilize the systems of the community and meet the expectations of the people (or they) might join the extremist elements who will demand something more," Misuari added.


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